Roxbury program spawned generation of photographers
In the summer of 1967, Wesley Williams spent much of his time hanging out at the Youth Alliance, a small social service agency located in a Blue Hill Avenue storefront.
Everything changed one afternoon when three long-haired white students from MIT showed up with Nikons and spoke to Williams and other teens hanging out at the center.
“They said, ‘you guys want to learn photography?’” Williams recalls. “They put Nikon cameras around our necks and asked us to take pictures. They showed us how to use the cameras. Then they said they’d be back next week to develop the film.”
Williams says he was surprised when the MIT students showed up the next week and each of the teens given a Nikon brought the camera back the next week. The MIT students explained that they wanted to train black photographers to capture images of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and other events through a black perspective.
With funding from MIT, the students rented space at 25 Ruggles St. in Dudley Square and launched the Roxbury Photographers Training Program. The teens worked with the MIT students to build a darkroom, photo studio and gallery to display their work. The students enlisted the help of professional photographers to help train the 10 teenagers enrolled in the program.
For Williams, who had never considered a career in photography, the program was a revelation.
“I shot pictures of the community,” Williams said. “I wanted to capture the beautiful parts of the community. Not the pictures you would see in the Herald.”
Eventually, the MIT students brought in Harry Emerson, a photographer who specialized in custom film processing, to lead the program.
“Emerson was a renaissance man,” said Omobowale Ayorinde, a participant in the program who went on to teach photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “He was a clean, stand-up black man who mentored and served as a role model. The list of brothers and sisters who he directly influenced is quite long.”
Through their two years of training, the teens developed lifelong skills that led to careers in photography and visual arts.
Williams got his start in photography freelancing for the Banner, conducting roving camera interviews and covering news and cultural events in the black community.
From the Banner gig, Williams went on to shoot freelance assignments for Newsweek, Black Enterprise and other publications. He shot assignments for publishing companies and other commercial ventures before becoming a camera man for WHDH-TV 7. Now a digital arts teacher at the Mildred Avenue K-8 school, Williams says he still draws on skills he learned working with the MIT students.
While the project was short-lived, the teens participated went on to mentor others, Williams notes, each sharing photographic insights and studio space with dozens of other budding photographers and artists over the years.
Among the protégés of the project’s graduates is Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes, who studied with Ayorinde in the years following the program.
“We would go on photographic journeys together,” she said.
So when the original students of the program got together for a reunion with Harry Ellison last October, Holmes was there along with the others.
“It was spectacular to be able to thank Harry and let him know the depth of the impact of his mentoring,” she said. “And each of us has gone on to mentor others.”
Williams says he is grateful to Ellis and the MIT students, who first had the vision to put a camera in his hands.
“Photography has been the most wonderful experience of my life,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”